A lot of us spend a lot of time abusing a special friend. It’s time we pay him proper homage. We are talking, of course, about your liver.
First, some identification is in order. Your liver is the large organ on the right side of your belly. It’s reddish-brown, weighs roughly three pounds, and if you could touch it, you’d say it was rubbery. It allegedly goes well with some fava beans, according to Dr. Lecter.
Your liver is protected by the rib cage, and its main job is to filter the blood coming from your digestive tract. But it also detoxifies chemicals and metabolizes drugs, while making proteins that play a role in blood clotting.
Ah, but the main reason we talk about our liver is drinking. Although it is susceptible to hepatitis, cirrhosis, cancer, gallstones, and other diseases, it sustains most of its abuse in America from alcohol, or therapy in a bottle, as some call it.
The liver manufactures most of the enzymes necessary to break down ethyl alcohol and detoxify it. But how alcohol damages the liver is not completely understood. Roughly 80% of alcohol passes through the liver. Too much over too many years, and you start to kill off liver cells.
The good news is your liver has the capacity to regenerate, even when nearly dead, and will continue to function as normal even at reduced capacity. And it takes a while to reach severe damage — studies indicate men consuming about 75 ml to 100 ml day (the equivalent of two mini-bottles of vodka, or half a pint) over 20 years should achieve their goal of liver disease.
There’s also a few tactics that can speed up that curve: drinking outside of meal times increases your chances of liver disease by a factor of three, and a hot dog is not considered a meal; and if you already have Hepatitis C, that disease can accelerate the liver problem.
But wait — there’s more!
Leaving alcohol aside (and we know how difficult that is for many people), there are a couple of other ways your liver can be damaged.
There’s steatosis, the accumulation of fatty acids in liver cells. These can appear just a few days after heavy drinking (or Thursday night, as it’s known in college). Too many, and the liver starts to form triglycerides. When it hits a certain level, triglycerides have been linked to atherosclerosis, which by extension raises your risk of heart disease and stroke.
Alcoholic hepatitis is the gift that up to 35% of heavy drinkers will develop, although the medical people have not figured out whether this is related to the dose of alcohol, or is some strange byproduct of it. In any case, it leads to cell death. Which is not good.
Finally, there’s our old friend cirrhosis, a late stage of serious liver damage. Its symptoms include swelling, cellular hardening, and damaged membranes that prevent the liver from detoxing you. Up to 20% of heavy drinkers get it — you can tell them by their yellow skin color and the pain on the side of the belly. Get it and you have to totally abstain from alcohol, a mighty task considering how long it takes to work up to the cirrhosis levels. It’s like becoming Pope and discovering that you have to give up sex chocolate.
So the good news, in case you were planning on sticking around a while, is that you can probably learn to manage things if you stay away just a bit from the bottle. And by that, we don’t mean drinking through a straw.